For the most part, this book is okay and even enjoyable. The prose isn’t bad and the dialogue has a lot of verve. But there’s a weird disparity between the author’s ability to characterize (which is very good) and the author’s ability to plot (which is less good). While most of the characters in this book are fantastic and interesting, the titular protagonist is neither of those things until much later in the book, and even then she becomes interesting primarily because she’s reacting to actions taken by the interesting people around her which, again, isn’t ideal. The stakes are not very coherent until more than halfway through the book, and large chunks of the beginning feel like pure filler. The setting is very strange in that it reads like it could have been Age of Sail fantasy, but actually it’s the post-post-apocalypse future after humanity has made Earth uninhabitable and everyone lives on ships or island stations–but the tech level feels odd and uneven, to the point that I’m not sure why this takes place in this specific setting. There’s a lack of specificity to the story that makes the milieu feel like an afterthought: this book could have been space opera and nothing would have changed apart from some vocabulary, and might arguably have benefited from being either space opera or outright fantasy. For example, what’s with the protagonist’s mysterious heritage and golden eyes that people won’t stop harping on about? Why does she have some kind of psychic/electromagnetic ability that lets her sense Earth’s cardinal points? Who knows. It’s not touched on even by the book’s end and is the only fantasy element in an otherwise science fictional setting that is, nevertheless, weirdly low-tech for what it purports to be; it feels like a leftover from a different draft and contributes to that odd YA-adjacent issue (in YA, it’s popular for the protagonist to have special parentage and special magic eyes) even though this book isn’t YA.
My reaction to the book is pretty odd as a result. I liked the romance, I liked the concentration of powerful, warlike women (everyone in power in this book is a woman, violent, experienced, and most of them are gay), the dialogue is whippy and fun and grandiose at the right places, but I skimmed a large amount of the text because large amounts of the text aren’t very compelling. This book goes on for too long, coming in at 375 pages when I reckon 200 pages would’ve done the trick. Either making the pirate captain, the admiral, or the pirate queen the protagonist would’ve improved everything significantly (especially if the pirate captain and the pirate queen furiously hate-fucks)–they’re seasoned, interesting, they have bloody history and complex motivations, and their perspective would’ve made the narrative vastly more efficient, less bogged down by the protagonist’s ignorance.
Do I recommend this book? Sure thing, because the lesbian romance is good and the majority of the characters are bloodthirsty women with complex pasts, and what made me skim large chunks of this book may be less of a slog to others. As a bonus, the author is a queer woman.
I really wanted to like this one but, throughout, I couldn’t get rid of the nagging feeling that this is a book written by a person who doesn’t read much SFF. Which by itself is fine, but it means that a lot of what’s done here feels incredibly dated, and very much out of touch. Then there are entire passages that go like this
He shrugged. “Like a million other people. You wouldn’t have noticed me at all.”
Trina’s eyes grew big. “Hold up—were you a white guy? And you took this brown kid’s face?”
Horizon raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“You didn’t! Horizon!” She looked around, almost expecting there to be hidden cameras in the bushes, as if this were all some retro prank. “You can’t—you can’t take other people’s faces, their races, and wear them like—like a suit!”
“Oh, race is a construction,” he said, waving his hand. “Everyone knows that.”
“That might be, but it’s still meaningful. Constructs mean things.”
He shrugged again. “Well, you can feel however you want about it, obviously.”
“Horizon, listen to me. You’re being so color-blind it’s racist!”
He looked stung, as if she had struck him. “I can’t believe you would use that word on me. How long have you known me?”
I mean, ok. It’s… well, it’s nails on chalkboard, isn’t it. I’m not one to complain that real people don’t talk like this but the problem is that the author hasn’t convinced me these people, given their context, would talk like this. It’s not an isolated thing–characters talk like this a lot (‘Nice try. I’m not about to let you oppress me with your systems of heteronormativity, stud’). Check out this positive review from Publisher’s Weekly.
Trina shakes her subsequent alcoholic depression just long enough to take on a “vengeful quest” to confront a former friend whom she fought with years before over identity politics, and to save a lost boy from the effects of the Seep.
‘Identity politics’ indeed.
So, assuming that maybe the reader isn’t supposed to take any of these conversations seriously (‘You can’t use other people for your own purposes any longer. This stops now!’), what are we left with? We’re left with a mildly interesting premise that sounds better in marketing copy than in execution, and which glowing reviews have compared to Ursula le Guin and Sheri Tepper. Which is probably accurate in the sense that I’m not sure the author has read science fiction any more recent than those, because the stilted style also reminds me of older fiction, to say nothing of the ideas explored which–as said–are pretty dated. Societal order collapses and utopia rises from it; people are joined in alien hivemind; everyone has total freedom to act and eating meat is painful because humans are joined to the pain of everything so most people are vegans now (really?). I think for this book to work, there needs to be a strong emotional core and in this case it just isn’t there, or what’s there doesn’t work for me.
As a whole, this book contains barely enough substance to fill a short story (30 pages, tops), let alone the 216 pages it occupies in hardback. Which is a shame, because as a short story it could’ve been decent.